Tag Archives: mental health

Sleep: My Blessing and My Curse

sleep-whats-sleepThere’s no question that, when you’re trying to manage mental illness, sleep is especially important. But there are times when my dastardly sleep cycle plays tricks on me. It makes want to scream “Why me, God! Why me!”

My sleep cycle has been especially haywire lately. Either I can hardly sleep at all, or all I want to do is sleep. There’s almost no in-between. Last night, I got maybe three hours of sleep, even though I was very tired when I turned out the lights. I swear, I did everything I know how to do. I tried getting in comfortable positions, and all that led to was a lot of tossing and turning. I told myself to think calm thoughts. My mind responded by racing. I don’t even remember what the racing thoughts were. I just remember being very, very frustrated. Now, that’s it’s morning, I feel like shit.

I don’t know what to do about it. I thought I had this problem licked a few weeks ago when my doctor adjusted my meds. For a while, I was sleeping normally, which for me, amounts to 6-7 hours a night.

But now, my cycle is off again. And especially when I can’t sleep, my waking hours are so much harder. I’ve tried reading before bed, but all I want to do is read more. A friend of mine has an unusual remedy. He reads, but he deliberately reads things that he has no interest in whatsoever. This does the trick for him. He falls asleep out of boredom — but he falls asleep.

I may try that. Or maybe I’ll move my meditation from the morning to the evening. I don’t know. I just want to be able to count on a good night’s sleep.

Are there any tricks you use to fall asleep (non-med related because God knows I take enough meds as it is, and I don’t want to take more)?

Feel free to share in the comment section.




A tough part of mental illness — dealing with other people’s mental illnesses

It’s been a tough week emotionally, and unfortunately, the place that I normally go to for strength — my mental illness support group — became the root of my anxiety.

More accurately, it was someone who had been attending my group — someone with severe anger issues. If someone set her off, she’d yell and swear at the top of her lungs. She’d also throw things. I saw her throw a laptop. She also threw a remote, breaking a window at the hospital building where we hold our meetings. She was also harassing a fellow group member with vicious emails. She swears they weren’t mean, but doctors and security personnel at the hospital didn’t begged to disagree. They were very concerned about the emails — so much so that they ordered extra security for our meetings. Let’s put it this way, when you send emails and you call someone a cunt and a bitch (and those were some of the milder words) it doesn’t exactly win you points.

We had no choice but to kick this woman out of our group. I understand that for some, severe rage is a horrific part of their mental illness. But you can’t be in a support group — a place where we go to listen to one another and of course, support one another — if you yell, swear, throw things, and send harassing emails. You just can’t. I happened to be facilitating the meeting where this woman threw her laptop and the remote. It was quite scary and alarming.

Fortunately, things like this don’t happen very often. I’ve been a mental health group facilitator for about a year now, and this is the first time I’ve had to deal with someone who was so angry and disruptive. I know this woman needs a lot of help, and I hope she gets it. Maybe it’s just that support groups aren’t a good fit for her right now.

I don’t think we’ve heard the last of this woman. Even with hospital security warning her to stay away, I know she has already called the hospital and demanded that she be allowed to come. The hospital isn’t budging. She can, if she wants, come to the hospital for individual treatment. But she can’t come to our meeting. She cannot compromise the safety of those of us who attend.

After I witnessed this woman’s most recent episode, a friend of mine who attends the group said that I should think about the people I’ve helped; the people whose lives have been changed for the better because they can finally rely on others who know exactly what they’re going through. That was great advice, and it’s been a very comforting thought.

But if I’m going to continue trying to help others with mental illnesses, I must deal with the fact that, at least once in a while, I will come across people who need much more than I can possibly give.

Last night was the first night that the group met since this woman’s latest outburst. I briefly thought of avoiding the meeting. But that would have meant giving into fear. I didn’t want to do that.

I went to our meeting. I found many friends there, and met some new ones. We sat in a circle, talking about meds, frustrations, happy milestones, the good, the bad, and lots of things in between. We were there for each other, just as a support group should be.

Once again, it was the best place for me to be, and I didn’t want to be anywhere else.







My top 5 movies about mental illness

As we get ready for the Oscars this Sunday, a lot of us are thinking about movies. I spend lots of time thinking about or watching movies. Between Netflix, Amazon Prime and YouTube, I don’t even have to go to the theater to watch many of them.

Like any human being, I love seeing aspects of myself when I see a movie. As someone with chronic depression and anxiety, it’s especially interesting to me when movies feature characters dealing with mental health challenges. With that in mind, if they ever create the Mentally Ill Oscars, these would be my nominees. It just so happens that they’ve all been at least nominated for real Oscars. In the words of Jack Nicholson, accepting Best Actor award for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, “I guess this proves there are as many nuts in the academy as anywhere else.”

Silver Linings Playbook

Oscar Nominations: 8

Oscar wins: 1 (Best Actress for Jennifer Lawrence) 

I’ve said this before; this, to me, is the gold standard for mental illness movies. I’ve watched it countless times, and every time I see it, it feels fresh to me. I love so many things about this film, but one of the things I love most is the way it explores how some “crazy” behaviors are accepted in our society, while others are not. Bradley Cooper plays Pat Solitano, a man with bipolar disorder who is living with his parents after spending six months in a mental hospital. Robert De Niro plays Pat’s father, a Philadelphia Eagles fanatic and a compulsive gambler. But gambling and sports fanaticism are accepted in our society. Bipolar disorder isn’t. This terrific father-son scene brings that difference — and all the guilt and shame that go with it — into poignant focus.

Rachel Getting Married

Oscar nominations: 1 (Best Actress nomination for Anne Hathaway)

Oscar wins: 0

Facing the family; it’s something that just about everyone dealing with mental health challenges dreads. Few films have explored this almost universal awkwardness as well as this one. Anne Hathaway plays Kym, a drug addict with bipolar tendencies who’s been released from rehab so she could attend her sister Rachel’s wedding. No one in the family really knows how to deal with Kym, and Kym knows this. Cue the voluminous eggshells walked on by nearly everyone.

Ordinary People

Oscar nominations: 6

Oscar wins: 4 (including Best Picture) 

I was a teenager when this film came out, and when I saw it, I was moved in a way that I’d never been moved by a film before. Secretly, I related to Conrad Jarrett, the troubled teen trying desperately to come to grips with the accidental death of his brother. Conrad was at the scene of his brother’s death, and his enormous survivor’s guilt leads him to attempt suicide. I’m an only child, and no relative of mine has ever died in a freak accident, but Timothy Hutton gave such a heartfelt, wrenching performance that I couldn’t stop thinking about it. The guilt, the shame, the not being able to understand the world or your place in it; I related to all of that. And, like few films before it, Ordinary People showed that wealth does not ease the pain of mental illness. On the outside, the  Jarretts have “everything.” But look inside, and you’ll see a family coming apart at the seams. Even an ordinary family photo is anything but ordinary.

Girl, Interrupted

Oscar nominations: 1 

Oscar wins: 1 (Best Supporting Actress for Angelina Jolie) 

I must say this one’s on my list more out of familiarity than anything else. As a young woman, Susanna Kaysen was a patient at McLean Hospital in Massachusetts. Girl, Interrupted was a book about her experiences at McLean, and the book became a movie. I’ve been a patient at McLean, and even though the hospital’s actual name wasn’t used in the film, I can say out of sheer certainty that I recognize the hospital grounds in the film instantly. The film has a terrific cast: Winona Ryder (as Susanna), Whoopi Goldberg, Vanessa Redgrave, a very young pre-Mad Men Elisabeth Moss and, in an Oscar-winning performance, Angelina Jolie as a rebellious nymphomaniac. Leave it to Angelina to make mental illness seem kind of sexy.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Oscar nominations: 9

Oscar wins: 5 (including Best Picture)

There are those who say that this film has contributed to the many negative stereotypes surrounding mental illness. They have a point — up to a point. It’s easy to forget that Cuckoo’s Nest is a period film. It takes place in the 1960s, when treatment for mental illness was primitive at best, and barbaric at worst. It’s unfortunate that so many people still think of this film first when they think of psychiatric hospitals. But Cuckoo’s Nest was one of the first films that dealt with mentally ill characters in a fully dimensional way. And then there’s Nurse Ratched. You could say she’s evil incarnate. But she’s also a brilliant metaphor for the rigid societal norms that were being questioned in the 1960s — and still are today. And the film has so many timeless human aspects. Then and now, when a man wants to watch baseball, he wants to watch baseball.

If I expanded my nominee list further, I could include The Hours, Rain Man, Bridesmaids (yes, that one. Kristen Wiig has big-time depression in that film), The Apartment and A Streetcar Named Desire. But, just as I hate it when the Oscars go on and on, I also hate it when lists go on and on.

So there you have it: my official nominees for the Mentally Ill Oscars. What films would you add? Feel free to comment below. Then, pass the popcorn.





Therapists should NOT be allowed to get sick!

At the psychotherapist

I want to be like this guy, but both of my therapists are sick. Damn!

Last week, I got a call from my therapist’s office. He has a medical emergency and will be out for at least a few weeks.

That sucks, but at least I still have my group therapy. Or so I thought. I just got a call from my group therapist. He’s sick. No group therapy this week.

I wish my therapists a quick and speedy recovery from whatever it is they’ve got. But damn if I don’t feel like I’m on a trapeze, and I’ve just lost a good portion of my net.

I hereby proclaim that therapists should not be allowed to get sick. If they do, there should be some kind of magic pill that whips them back to health just like that. Wouldn’t that be amazing?

New beginnings

New beginnings

My new nest

I haven’t posted for quite a while. That’s never a good way to begin a blog post, but life has been putting me through the ringer lately, and it took what little energy I had out of me.

For the better part of this year, I’ve known that I needed to find a new apartment when my lease expired. And for the better part of this year, I’ve been looking. And looking, And looking. It has been beyond frustrating. I love Boston. I have from the minute I started living here. But I’ve come to believe that there is no middle class in this city anymore. Rents all over this city have skyrocketed.

And the few affordable places I did find — well, let’s just say that I quickly learned the real estate lingo around here. “Cozy” means the apartment is the size of a closet. “Charming” means it’s a dump (but somehow, the dirt has character.) “Perfect for a grad student” means don’t even think of renting here if you’re over 30. Of course, no one will ever say that outright, because that’s illegal. But you quickly get the picture when you realize that you’re old enough to be the father of everyone in the building.

At least here in Massachusetts, if you’re a high functioning person with a mental illness, landlords can’t use that as a reason not to rent to you (unless you have a criminal record.) But while I’ve become better at hiding my depression when I need to, it has become harder and harder for me to hide my anxiety disorder. Several times, I wondered if people saw that side of me. I wondered if that was the reason I didn’t get the apartment.

I was about to give up. I was seriously considering leaving Boston. That would have meant not only saying goodbye to a city I love, but also saying goodbye to good friends, family–and my network of mental health doctors and support groups. That last one was no small matter. One of the unsung good things about Boston is that if you’re going to have a mental illness, this city is a good place to have it. Some of the best and most respected psychiatric doctors in the world train and practice here. I didn’t want to lose them.

But then I found this place–a tiny apartment in a very nice brownstone. It’s smaller than my old place, but I was prepared for that. As I said before, anything considered anywhere near affordable here is going to be small. But the apartment is bigger than a closet. I can live with that. The neighborhood is beautiful, I’m very close to public transportation (which is good, because I no longer drive), and there are lots of great (and even inexpensive) restaurants around here.

The other residents seem nice, too. They actually say hello to me, which is something of a miracle in a city where lots of people tend to be stand-offish. I don’t know for sure, but I have a feeling that several of them are part of my “tribe.” When you have a mental illness, you get pretty good at picking up on others who have a mental illness. This, so far, is a big plus for me. To quote a popular tune from the musical Rent, I feel like an “us” for once, instead of a “them.”

I also feel like an enormous weight has been lifted off my shoulders. I’m ready for the change. I’m ready for this new beginning.

On Memorial Day, remembering veterans lost to suicide.

Every day, an average of 22 veterans commit suicide. That’s where the organization Mission 22 gets its name. Along with providing help and resources for veterans and their families, Mission 22 collected some stark, stunning photos of homes where veterans killed themselves. They were taken by a photojournalist who covered several wars with this camera, then realized after he got back that, for too many veterans, the wars continue long after they come home. This Memorial Day, let’s not forget about the veterans who endured tough field battles, but could not endure the battles within themselves.

Check out Mission 22’s website, and the photo series, here.

Who wants to see Catherine Zeta Jones on a bad day?

Catherine Zeta Jones - mental illness

Catherine Zeta Jones: so beautiful, and so admirably open about her mental illness.

A few days ago, at one of my support groups, an unusual subject came up: Catherine Zeta Jones.

Catherine has always been a favorite of mine. She’s a versatile actress, and she has an earthy, gutsy persona that I’ve always liked. On top of that, she’s been admirably open about being bipolar–even going so far as being honest about her treatment. If mental illness has the face of serial killers, it’s good to know that mental illness can also have the face of Catherine Zeta Jones.

But a wise young woman in our group brought up an interesting point:

“Even now, whenever you see Catherine, she’s beautiful and radiant and dressed to the nines. I just read this article about her being bipolar, and all the article focused on is how beautiful she still is. It’s not Catherine’s fault. She didn’t write the article. But I want to see Catherine when she doesn’t look stunning. I want to see her with her hair undone. And without makeup. And in baggy sweats that she hasn’t gotten out of for days. I want to see her flying off the handle when she’s manic, and disheveled in bed when she’s depressed. I want to she THAT Catherine Zeta Jones. But the public, I’m sure doesn’t want to see that. And that’s the problem.”

Now, I can’t blame Catherine for not wanting to reveal this side of herself to the public. I mean, when I’m in one of my down periods, I don’t want to reveal myself to anyone. But the bigger point is: if people only see us on our good days, how can we get them to understand what we go through on our bad days?

In my own case, I can’t totally hide my bad days, because I occasionally get anxiety attacks in public. They’re embarrassing as hell, especially when they happen in front of friends and family. But because people SEE me shaking, sweating, and stuttering, they at least have a visual of me when I’m “off.” They don’t question me when I say I’m not doing well. Boy, do I appreciate that.

So, maybe it would be good if we found a way to show more of our bad days. Because the reality is, they’re not pretty. Even for someone as beautiful as Catherine Zeta Jones.

To disclose mental illness at work — or not to disclose? NPR runs a great piece on this question

Ever so slowly,the media in the United States is covering mental illness more than it ever has before. True, many stories do nothing but sensationalize–like most of the stories about that German pilot who deliberately crashed a passenger plane. Note to media: I’m sure there are plenty of pilots with depression that you know nothing about. I have it on good authority that 99.9999 percent of them will never deliberately crash a passenger plane.

That tragedy was also the basis of this NPR report. Mercifully, NPR takes a much more effective approach. What is it like to be high-functioning, yet still have mental illness? I wrestle with this just about every day, and there are no easy answers. But at least responsible news sources like NPR are starting to ask good questions.

Listen to the report here.

Can I keep calm if my anxiety doctor’s on vacation?

Today, at the start of my anxiety therapy group, the doctor who leads us started with an announcement: he’ll be on vacation for the next two weeks.

The good news is that, even though all of us have anxiety severe enough to land us in a doctor-led group, our fearless leader is not assigning another doctor to us while he’s out. In other words, he thinks we’ll be just fine for a few weeks without him.

The bad news is, that’s not how we think. When you have an anxiety disorder, any kind of change can create more anxiety. Our doctor knows that, which is probably why he opened with that announcement instead of saving it until the end. He knew this was something that needed “processing.”

I already miss the guy. He’s a tough therapist who pushes us to do the things that scare us the most. Needless to say, I haven’t always been thrilled when I left his sessions. But I can see the progress that I’ve made, and I don’t like the thought of not reporting to him until next month.

It kind of reminds me of that old movie What About Bob?, where Bill Murray plays patient who finds where his doctor is vacationing — and joins him there. Now, I’m not planning on stalking my doctor. I’m afraid he wouldn’t like that, and that’s probably a “good” fear.

And besides, an intrepid member of our group has already come up with a solution: what if we just get together on our own for the next few weeks and check in with each other anyway? Our doctor supports this idea, and I think it’s a good one.

That suggestion tells me two things: first, we are committed to our recovery, so much so that we don’t want to take a “break” from it. This other thing is (channeling Sally Field here), we like each other. We really like each other. Even though all of us have different roots and levels of anxiety, we all have issues with social interaction. So it can only be good that we still want to interact with one another, even without a doctor.

I’ve committed to joining my temporarily doctor-less group. I’m sure we’ll listen to each other and give some pretty good advice. Or maybe we’ll watch What About Bob? That would be fun. We’d be reminded that, as bad as we think we are, we could sure be a lot worse.

Monica Lewinsky and the price of shame

Monica Lewisnky gave a TED talk recently on the price of shame, and it’s one of the best TED talks I’ve ever heard.

Her’s is a name that will always conjure up a mixed bag of emotions, and she knows it. Say what you will about her, but very few people have had to live out their mistakes as publicly as she has.

To me, that makes her now very public stand against cyber-bullying all the more impressive. In standing up against cyber-bullying, she is also standing up for mental health. She addresses the issue of how, especially among the young, the increase in online bullying has also led to an increase in suicides and suicidal ideations.

But to me, there’s also a more subtle, if no less important, way that she addresses mental health awareness here. She talks a lot about the need for empathy, and I couldn’t agree more. There’s a big difference between empathy and sympathy. When I tell people of my own mental health issues, I notice that it’s easier for many to project sympathy than empathy. But the thing is, I’m not looking for sympathy. I don’t want anyone feeling sorry for me. Who does?

But I do want empathy. I do want people to at least make an attempt to put themselves in my place. To tell me that they are there for me no matter what. I’ve noticed how hard this is for a lot of people, and I think it’s indicative of an unfortunate lack of empathy that is due, in large part, to the Internet. Of course, if I want empathy from others, I also must become more aware of how I project it myself. I like to think that I’m good at it. Now, though, I’m thinking that I could do better.

So, when Monica Lewinsky talks about the need for empathy here, she is speaking for people like myself. I applaud her, both for this amazing TED talk, and for taking a stand. Take a listen and let me know what you think.